From the News Service of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 9, 2016.. Money to restore the state’s natural springs has been attached to a proposal that would direct as much as $200 million a year to South Florida water projects.
The Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee supported an amendment Tuesday that would require at least $75 million a year to be budgeted for springs preservation.
Sen. Joe Negron, the sponsor of the overall bill (SB 1168) known as “Legacy Florida,” said the money for the springs makes the proposal more statewide and won’t impact his desire to direct to South Florida some of the funds approved by voters in a 2014 constitutional amendment for water and land preservation.
“By adding the springs component we’re not detracting anything from the Everglades restoration,” Negron said. “In fact, they complement each other and make the bill even stronger.”
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a similar measure (HB 989) to fund South Florida projects. The bill, which does not include the springs funding, is ready for the House floor.
Michael Williams, a spokesman for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, said in an email Tuesday the House and Senate have not had discussions about the springs funding “concept.”
“We look forward to learning more about their proposal,” Williams said.
The Legacy Florida money is expected to pay for projects that will eventually reduce the need for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release billions of gallons of contaminated water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, as it is currently does as a way to reduce stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.
The proposal has drawn support from organizations such as the Florida League of Cities, Audubon Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Nature Conservancy and the Everglades Foundation.
“Right now, billions of gallons of polluted water are pouring out of Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, wreaking havoc on their ecologies and economies,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a prepared statement supporting the Legacy Florida proposal.
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said lawmakers need to ensure the funding remains available.
“We’re just going to have to dig deep to make sure there is the actual funding there to make this a reality,” Soto said.
Soto is expected to join Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, on Wednesday in proposing a budget amendment that would increase funding from $22.3 million to $220 million for land acquisition through the Florida Forever program. The Senate will take up its proposed budget Wednesday during a floor session.
Florida Forever, which uses bonds backed with revenue from documentary-stamp real-estate taxes, authorizes lawmakers to spend up to $300 million a year for preservation. But as the economy went sour during the recession, so did funding for Florida Forever.
Under Negron’s bill, 25 percent or $200 million a year, whichever is lower, would go from what is known as the state land-acquisition trust fund to Everglades and Lake Okeechobee projects.
Of that money, $32 million would go to the South Florida Water Management District for the Long-Term Plan through the 2023-2024 fiscal year, about $100 million annually for the next decade would be used to plan, design, engineer and construct works already approved under the Central Everglades Planning Project, and the remaining funds would go the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program.
“It reflects a long-term commitment, over the next 10 years, toward restoration of the Everglades,” Negron said.
The measure also would require the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District to give preference to Everglades restoration projects that reduce discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie or Caloosahatchee estuaries.
The land-acquisition trust fund is being used to carry out the 2014 constitutional amendment, which requires that a portion of documentary-stamp taxes are set aside for land and water buying and preservation.
Gov. Rick Scott’s office has estimated the real estate tax is expected to generate $905 million for the land-acquisition trust fund during the fiscal year that starts July 1. The measure was projected to generate $740 million in the current fiscal year.